Some of the losses being suffered around the world are massive, obvious, and understandably devastating. The loss of lives, economic losses large scale and personal, the loss of freedom to move about. These are obvious and significant losses and we recognize them as such. We are also experiencing countless other ‘smaller’ losses. The potentially silent danger is these smaller ones can accumulate without us consciously noticing or recognizing it is actually loss we are struggling with, eventually stacking up to have just as devastating an impact as more massive singular ones.
The loss of lives happening all across the globe is truly tragic. Any loss of life in a situation such as this is tragic and the numbers likely reached before this is over will probably redefine our perceptions of that word. Each one of those numbers was someone’s relative, friend, lover, parent, child, they were someone. Recovering from the loss of a loved one can take a very long time, to a degree we never do entirely.
What makes it so devastating, beyond the specific loss of them, is losing all the aspects of our lives they were connected to. Talking with them, eating with them, seeing their typical posts online, waving to them as you head out in the morning, tripping over their toys, getting grief from them over the way you dress, being able to tell them all about something that just happened to you.
The initial emotional blow of their death is devastating enough but part of what prevents the wound from fully healing are the constant collisions with the tiny habits we developed around having them in our lives. Each reflexive thought or impulse which would normally connect us to them now reminds us they are gone and we suffer a repetition of the initial pain of their loss, persisting aftershocks of grief.
As we continue to struggle with this pandemic and the casualties continue to mount we have yet to see the full weight of those losses come into effect. We are all still too consumed with the day to day struggles of simply getting through this, we don’t yet have time to be still enough as a society for it to fully sink in. When it eventually does one saving grace will be it is a grief everyone will understand.
But even those of us who have not been directly impacted by the losses of life have already been struggling with the mental and emotional costs and consequences of loss. A great deal of conversation is happening around the impact of fear and in particular the exacerbating effects of uncertainty. They are very genuine forces at work wearing away at our mental and emotional health but at the core of these forces is loss, we are already struggling with the accumulation of ‘small’ losses.
For many of us the first impacts of the growing crisis were the cancellations of events and activities. Concerts, sporting events, trips, theatrical performances, festivals, as more details became clear about the mechanism and velocity of infection more and more events involving large crowds began to cancel. It was disappointing, frustrating, even somewhat devastating as these were things people had been saving for or looking forward to for months or even years. Compared to the death of a loved one these losses seem minor, even dismissible, but they are still legitimate losses which accumulate.
With each new cancellation or alteration to our normal lives the internal emotional machinery of loss kicks in starting us into the five stages of grieving; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Smaller losses impact us enough to set the process off but not enough to force us through the entirety of it. Other things in our lives take over our focus and we often wind up leaving the process only partially finished. In the case of just one or two smaller losses we usually just get swept along and the dangling unresolved emotional costs get washed out in the currents of ongoing life.
When we keep getting hit with one after another, again and again in virtually all aspects of our lives we end up with more and more of these emotional cycles getting stuck at around anger or bargaining. Each one adds another level of frustration and emotional drain leaving us feeling more exhausted and eventually leading to a sense of powerlessness or hopelessness.
And it is in the losses from our sense of normalcy that the reactions and consequences of grief begin to co-mingle with the anxieties produced by uncertainty. It is one thing to suffer a loss knowing we will never get it back but if we don’t know that for certain, if there may be a possibility the loss is temporary it traps us in an in-between state feeling unable to finish the process of mourning.
We don’t know exactly what our lives will look like on the other side of this crisis or exactly how long it will take us to get there. What will the new normal look like? Will it be virtually the same as before? Will it be completely different? Will it be only slightly different? Will the events and occasions we lost reappear or are they gone for good? The uncertainty makes it feel as if we are trapped in the very first stages of grief but that is a misleading impression, understandable but misleading.
The blunt truth is we have lost those things. We had them and then the necessities of doing our best to combat this crisis have taken them from us. This is not to say that the life we will find on the other side of all this might not look very much, if not nearly identical, to the life we knew before but rather than lock ourselves into indeterminate mourning waiting to ‘regain’ those things we have lost we need to shift our attitude to one of waiting to ‘gain’ the new ones.
The concert we were going to attend this May might be rescheduled for next May, same performer, same venue, even the same date and time. But it won’t be the same concert, it won’t be the one we lost. It wasn’t pre-recorded and just broadcast at another time. It will be a new concert. That performer will be in a different place in their life next May, the world will be in a different place, and more importantly we will be in a different place. Even if the concert ends up being virtually identical to the one which would have happened this May we will not be the same person who would’ve attended it.
And that is okay. Every experience we have in our lives has the potential to change us, slightly or significantly. What we are collectively going through in this moment is going to change all of us. For the better? Hopefully. For the worse? Hopefully not. But we won’t know until we get there. And the only way to wipe the slate clean giving that new version of ourselves the freedom to face the next phase ready and open is to allow ourselves to let go of the things we have lost from before.
They are gone. Their loss is frustrating, disappointing, painful, devastating, but the world does not owe us their return. The world is not withholding them from us. This crisis has changed the entire board. It’s not about ‘fair’ or ‘deserved’ or ‘supposed to’, it simply has.
Acknowledge the losses, mourn them, and then release them rather than drag them around like solid stone anchors.
Substitute in anything which has been delayed, postponed, cancelled, deferred, suspended, or the seemingly mundane interactions of the workplace or public spaces we would never have pointed to as such important markers of normalcy and the truth remains the same. Whatever shape future opportunities may take the things we have lost have been lost. We need to shift our focus away from regaining the old to gaining the new and the next.
Not merely for the sake of striving for a more positive outlook, which is certainly a worthwhile effort, but if we stay fixated on regaining what ‘was’ we will also be dragging around the implicit demand and expectation things return to being exactly as they were. They won’t. Whether life after this crisis winds up being fairly similar or markedly different our first steps out the other side of all this will happen in phases. They will need to be cautious, mindful, alert, and prepared to keep people as safe as possible as we slowly push the wheels once more into forward motion.
The only way to free ourselves from resentment of any differences from our previous lives is to acknowledge our losses, mourn them, and then release them. Some losses will be much more difficult to mourn than others. Those of us who have lost loved ones during this crisis will spend the rest of our lives coping with that grief. Thankfully the tools for coping with loss are the same regardless of its size. It is merely a matter of utilizing them.
Acknowledge The Loss And The Mourning
We need to allow ourselves to speak in terms of loss. As painful as it may be, we need to use the word ‘gone’. And acknowledge the pain which comes with it. Allow ourselves to feel it. Pain is unpleasant but it’s okay, and it’s important. It is a natural reaction and part of the emotional process we need to go through in order to recover and move forward.
Some things will hurt more than we expect, some less. The only way to get through it is to feel it. Acknowledging that it is grief we are struggling with, that we are mourning losses, offers us a clearer understanding of the emotions we are feeling.
It is a lot easier to deal with something when we actually know what it is.
Resist Any Prescriptive Thinking About Grief
There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to grieve. There are no set time-lines, no fixed math, no standard playbook. Grief manifests differently for everyone and we will grieve differently for different things. Don’t let anyone else tell you how to grieve nor impose any such ideas on anyone else. We will get through things when and how is right for us, the key element is to acknowledge the loss so we can start the process.
In particular, remember that grieving happens in cycles not in straight lines. We will revolve through phases of feeling terrible to feeling somewhat better to feeling fine then back to feeling terrible and around again. We have to let the cycle revolve as the goal is to keep expanding the circle out away from the painful moment of loss a bit more and more each time until there are entire sections of the cycle which are able to have nothing to do with the loss at all.
We only get there by letting the cycle roll as slowly or quickly as it needs to.
Put Effort Into Caring For Yourself
Mourning loss can be a painful and draining struggle. We can only do battle if we have energy with which to fight and we only have energy if we look after ourselves. We need sleep, we need food, we need things to focus our thoughts on other than grieving. In the case of severe loss initially these efforts can seem enormous. The ratio can start out looking like ‘five minutes of self-care effort then fifty-five minutes of rest’. And that’s okay, engaging in the effort itself is the first key factor.
Making effort to take care of our own physical and emotional health quickens the recovery and healing because is increases our physical heath thereby giving us the raw fuel to push forward, it re-establishes our connection with a sense of normalcy.
It broadcasts to the world and ourselves that we feel we can recover and are worthy of it.
Speak About Your Feelings
Even the most introspective souls need to express their feelings when faced with intense struggle. It’s not about problem solving, trouble shooting, or seeking answers. The simple act of releasing emotion has enormous impact on our ability to cope. To put it simply, we all need to vent at times. Sometimes answers can occur to us in such moments but the more difficult the struggle the more important it is we have times and spaces to simply let our emotions out where we can hear them and feel them and keep them from consuming us from the inside out.
Such spaces can often require a little cultivation. The people in our lives who care about us will reflexively want to try and help, to try and solve away whatever problems are causing us pain, but there are times when we simply need someone to be present for us. Someone to hear us and to see us while we take the cork out of the bottle, to make it safe for us to just feel whatever it is we need to feel. This is also something we can offer others or even share at the same time.
Someone offering such a space is a validation and a support. Someone sharing the feelings is all the much more so.
Connect With Others
No one gets through loss alone, especially not on the scale we are currently facing. To be vulnerable and human is not weakness. In truth it takes far more strength to reach out than it does to try and shoulder through alone. And the end result is always far healthier for all involved.
One of the few blessings in this crisis is we are all truly in this together. Even though there are those who are not behaving particularly well or all that responsibly there isn’t a person alive who doesn’t know this is happening. We are most definitely not alone. There is an entire planet of other people going through this as well, each one of them someone with the potential to understand and empathize.
Reach out. Nod in acknowledgement of people you encounter and truly see them as you do. React to posts. Answer messages people send you, even with only a word or two. Send messages of your own, even if they are only a word or two.
Connecting with others isn’t about solving their troubles or making the scary things go away it is simply about reminding others, and ourselves, that we are not alone. The more of us there are the more strength to stand and endure we can have, the more power to push forward, the more likely we will find solutions, and the more empowered we can be to feel hope.